Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Dangerous Curves

The tour bus is coming straight at me. Just inches from the bumper of my tiny car, all I can do is wait and watch. Several cars are snuggled up tight in my rear-view, and a three foot rock wall is almost touching my folded mirror on the right. I am firmly stuck. 

Beyond the old stone wall, a steep cliff drops several hundred feet to the beach below. This is it. This is the drive I’ve coveted for years, and the reason I shipped my Miata to Italy. I wanted this experience firsthand. I am rolling rubber on one of the most coveted driving destinations in Italy and possibly the world; the Amalfi Coast.

But reading about the coastline is very different from actually driving it. It occurs to me many of the people who photograph this road are probably in a helicopter, coming off a cruise ship, or riding in a giant air-conditioned tour bus like the one trying to squeeze past me now.  Without a choice, I’m going to surrender to the experience.

Pulling out my camera, I photograph the bus driver’s skillful attempt to squeeze past me. Around him, passengers are looking down at me, watching the wild maneuver and laughing. Their expressions are incredulous at the seemingly impossible task their driver is working to accomplish. 

Amazingly, the bus inches past me. I can breathe again, and I’m pretty sure the tourists in that bus are having more fun than I am right at this moment.  
             Driving the Amalfi Coast is an adventure best done on or in, something very small. The Italians know this and scurry confidently along the stretch of winding, narrow turns on scooters and in tiny Fiats, never once glancing out at the view, splitting lanes where there are no lanes and passing slow pokes without any regard for safety. 

            For visitors who have traveled to Italy dreaming of seeing the post card pretty towns of Amalfi and Positano, watching the view unfold is the whole point of being here. But this stretch of coast is treacherous for shutterbugs distracted by snapping that once-in-a-lifetime picture. 

            Thousands visit the coast every year, but those industrious enough to drive it are easily identified. The wide-eyed and terrified crawl of newbies in awe along the sometimes path-like drive is a frequent sight during the peak summer months.

            Yet, I keep coming back.

            This isn’t my first cruise of the coast; it’s the third in a month. Why? Because like anyone who loves to drive or ride, who exalts on twisty turns, I’m trying to master it. Like anything challenging, driving this road to achieve pure enjoyment - devoid of freaking out- takes practice. 

            Practice watching the huge mirrors in every blind turn, practice breathing and achieving calm when a head-on collision seems eminent, practice sharing one lane with both on-coming traffic and a scooter riding shot-gun.

            My first practice was on a motorcycle. Not a quiet, maneuverable BMW, but a loud, bigger-than-a-smart-car Harley Davidson Street Glide. It was a first lesson in the disgust scooter riders have for larger, “real” motorcycles. In addition to dodging cars, we were sandwiched on both sides by scooters buzzing around us impatiently. 

            It was easier to share the road on a bike, but a conspicuous way to get the attention of Italians who have little patience with anyone moving under 40 miles-per-hour on this 15-mile-per-hour road. We were shoved onto the shoulder – where there is no shoulder- innumerable times.

          Despite that first heart-stopping ride, I’m back again and again. As a native Seattleite who has enjoyed a San Diego field office for 20 years, I’ve both ridden and driven the entire west coast of Washington, Oregon and California a dozen times. For years I thought nothing compared to Highway 101 along the Pacific Ocean, and it didn’t.

           Then I moved to Italy and the Amalfi Coast drive stopped me like a baby deer on a piece of gravel road stops a sports car. 

            I was blown away by the beauty. Buoyed by the challenge. Ready to master this stretch of Italy and go home to the United States one day knowing I’d driven one of the most incredible stretches of road in Italy, been behind my own wheel doing it, and mastered some of the world’s most dangerous curves.